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Wednesday, 29 November, 2023

The career strategy of a maverick

The career strategy of a maverick is just like surfing. Like many things in life, careers don’t actually exist as an entity. You can’t pick them up, you can’t smell them, and you can’t catch them in a jar. Corporations and organisations are merely an illusion created by a collection of like minded energetic people. If they all changed their minds tomorrow and focused their energy somewhere else, the corporation would disappear and, like poor old Ozymandias, turn back into sand.

What they have in common is energy. Energy created, sustained, and propagated by people.

Waves are the same thing. Waves are just energy passing through water, solids, or the vacuum of space. Be they huge or small, powerful, or weak, destructive, or beneficial, they are just energy. Careers are simply a different form of wave energy, passing through the medium of people.

The career strategy of successful mavericks, as opposed to almost everyone else, is to maximise that energy in a beneficial way to assist them in their goals. They do this by adopting the strategy of a surfer. This is a strategy that can work for you, as well.

The high tech

During my time at HP – the high-tech product company – in my roles as sales person and sales manager, I was constantly bombarded with the product adoption “S” (sigmoid) curve.

In business, the S curve is used to describe, and sometimes predict, the performance of a company or product over a period of time.

The full S curve can be found in the standard deviation “bell curve” that most of us have seen. In HP, we understood the concept for market penetration of a new technology product as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The product adoption S curve © Robin Farmer, WaveMaker

The other S curve that became important to me was the innovation and product development curve.

Figure 2. The innovation S curve© Robin Farmer, WaveMaker

This series of curves shows that, to survive in an innovative market, new products have to be created and developed well in advance of the peak of the previous product. If you don’t, you run out of market or you run out of cash.

The idea of applying this S curve to careers came from the comments of one of the senior HP  mavericks I interviewed in the early stages of my research. When I asked what prompted her to move from career stage to career stage, she described the S curve as a wave and said, “I see myself as a surfer, riding the best waves available and moving to better waves when I find them.”

In that way, the S curve is just a wave. Swap “product” for “role” and you have the basis of my book WaveMaker. The S curve sequence also clearly shows that the best time to start the next role curve is well before the first curve peaks. This knowledge is critical to understanding the behaviour of successful Mavericks.

Waves as an analogy worked really well for me. And it got me thinking … if, for a surfer, close to the crest of the wave was the best place to be for maximum energy, it was also the best place to be if you want to move to another, better, wave.

The wave analogy worked brilliantly for mavericks, but it also worked brilliantly for the not-so-successful performers. It explained an awful lot about those that just couldn’t pick the right wave to surf and for those that stayed on a wave too long past its crest.

You see, what makes the greatest surfer isn’t just their surfing skill. It’s mostly to do with their ability to choose the best waves to ride. This is what gave me the insight to coach people – not on developing better surfing skills, but to help them develop their wave sense, to make better decisions on which wave to ride. This idea is what changed the way I looked at mavericks. It’s what helped me better understand their behaviour. They weren’t just clever, focussed and lucky, they were actually doing something different when it came to identifying the best waves.

The career strategy of a maverick

With the people I managed, the difference between most of my poorer career performers and my stellar performers seemed to come down to their strategy around waves and opportunities.

Just in front of the crest of a wave, the surfer is looking forward and around to better identify the next wave. At or past the crest of a wave, the surfer is either just looking behind them or trying to survive the inevitable drowning.

Because waves are just energy, this energy can be supplied to a surfer by the wave (surfing) or it can sap the surfer’s energy (swimming against the current). At the right point on the wave, the wave gives the surfer the energy they need to move forward. However, if they hang on for too long, the surfer ends up supplying energy to the wave, trying to keep it going. They get drained of energy and can’t succeed. Hanging on to a dwindling wave for too long is one of the major reasons for a failing career strategy.

The career strategy of a maverick … let’s leave the successful mavericks to their fun for a second, next month we will explore the struggling performer

Robin Farmer
Robin Farmer
From Draughtsman in ship building to Engineer in process control to Sales and then people leadership Robin has had a varied and successful career. Focussed on high technology, in large and small organisations, Robin has worked for HP for 12 years, run start-ups and then with Microsoft UK for almost 20 years. This long career coupled to his engineer’s mind has given Robin remarkable insight into the culture and operation of Global Corporations.

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